Feeds

Rocks, hard places and Congo minerals

Is your mobile phone fueling a vicious civil war?

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

What should we be doing about these conflict minerals from the Congo, eh? Even MPs are raising Questions in the House on the topic.

It's certainly true that some of the violence in Eastern Congo has been associated with access to minerals. What's a lot less certain is which way around the causality goes: is it people being violent to control the minerals trade or is the minerals trade a way to finance violence already inherent?

There are those who know the situation on the ground a lot better than you or I do who argue that it is the latter. There are campaigners who insist that it is the former as well. Perhaps most importantly, why would anyone on a tech site be interested?

That last is the easiest to answer. The mineral that really has everyone hopping is “coltan”, the correct name for which is columbo tantalite, and which is the source of all that lovely tantalum which makes the capacitors which are such a vital part of just about every tech product.

It is possible to make them from niobium, although they'll be larger and less efficient, but unfortunately the columbo part (for niobium used to be called columbite by the Americans) is a major source of that metal. We could go back to aluminium, but then we're back to the world of brick-like phones.

So, it is a matter of some importance if rape, murder and torture are being used to supply us with part of the industry's lifeblood. It's akin to the recent arguments over “blood diamonds” although no one is saying it's exactly the same. The blood diamond wars (in Angola, Sierra Leone etc) seemed to be more about having a war to get control of the mines so as to be able to finance a war to get control of the mines. Eastern Congo has other conflicts. It wouldn't be at peace even if there were no minerals at all.

The general solution being offered is that somehow we should make sure that minerals mined under violent conditions, or mined to finance violence, should not be allowed to enter the supply chain. Dependent on the mineral this will be more or less effective. However - and I do hope I'm not thought too cynical - this seems to have morphed into something of a boondoggle.

As background, the four metals under discussions are known as the “3Ts plus gold”. Tantalum (from our coltan), tin (from cassiterite), tungsten (wolframite) and gold. To a certain level of accuracy (not a very high one, true), columbite, tantalite, cassiterite and wolframite are actually the same mineral. They've all got a bit of Nb, Ta, Sn, W in them, and we apply the different appellation dependent upon which is the major content. And yes, tin slags from cassiterite processing end up at a Ta plant and Ta plants always have tin extraction circuits.

There are serious problems with stopping tin or gold entering the supply chain: tin extraction, by definition, is a Bronze Age technology as spoil heaps all over Cornwall show us and gold older than that. If you've a forest (for charcoal), labour and can build a bloom furnace then you can extract both of them from the ores found in DR Congo. It's easy enough to then sell these, completely unidentifiable by now, roughly processed metals into the scrap supply chain.

So efforts concentrate on the coltan, for extraction of the interesting metals from that is not easy at all (wolframite is a very minor player indeed in all of this). And there's a certain political piquancy to being able to point to a mobile phone and screaming that “people died for that!”.

Getting to the choke points

The essential guide to IT transformation

More from The Register

next story
Hello, police, El Reg here. Are we a bunch of terrorists now?
Do Brits risk arrest for watching beheading video nasty? We asked the fuzz
Snowden on NSA's MonsterMind TERROR: It may trigger cyberwar
Plus: Syria's internet going down? That was a US cock-up
UK government accused of hiding TRUTH about Universal Credit fiasco
'Reset rating keeps secrets on one-dole-to-rule-them-all plan', say MPs
Caught red-handed: UK cops, PCSOs, specials behaving badly… on social media
No Mr Fuzz, don't ask a crime victim to be your pal on Facebook
e-Borders fiasco: Brits stung for £224m after US IT giant sues UK govt
Defeat to Raytheon branded 'catastrophic result'
Yes, but what are your plans if a DRAGON attacks?
Local UK gov outs most ridiculous FoI requests...
Felony charges? Harsh! Alleged Anon hackers plead guilty to misdemeanours
US judge questions harsh sentence sought by prosecutors
This'll end well: US govt says car-to-car jibber-jabber will SAVE lives
Department of Transportation starts cogs turning for another wireless comms standard
Munich considers dumping Linux for ... GULP ... Windows!
Give a penguinista a hug, the Outlook's not good for open source's poster child
UK fuzz want PINCODES on ALL mobile phones
Met Police calls for mandatory passwords on all new mobes
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Top 10 endpoint backup mistakes
Avoid the ten endpoint backup mistakes to ensure that your critical corporate data is protected and end user productivity is improved.
Top 8 considerations to enable and simplify mobility
In this whitepaper learn how to successfully add mobile capabilities simply and cost effectively.
Rethinking backup and recovery in the modern data center
Combining intelligence, operational analytics, and automation to enable efficient, data-driven IT organizations using the HP ABR approach.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.